Sunday, April 21

Aikido Days

I love aikido. I love everything about it. The ritual of the mat, wearing a gi, the graceful dance-like movements of the arts. I love the feeling of doing them with ease. I love doing rondori,  which can be intimidating but when you are flowing with ki , it's magical. I learned so much about my self, about power, about the dance of life.

But it looks like my aikido days are numbered. I can't do forward rolls anymore because of arthritis's in my back. Getting up from a backward roll is hard, hell getting up from seiza is hard because of stiff knees. It's not just my body that's failing, it's my sense of purpose. I intended to get a black belt from the moment I started training. I intended to teach from the moment I got my black belt.

Obtaining rank was a Big Deal with me and it took me twice as long as average but, sadly, the teaching is unattainable now.That's the biggest disappointment of all. I understand a lot of things and I'm pretty good at conveying ideas to other people but after all the years of training I still lack an understanding of how to show others this beautiful martial art. What exactly it is I lack I don't know. 

When you reach black belt or Shodan, you wear a hakama and I really dug the idea of having one. It's a black, skirt like pant with wide pleats and two long sashes you wrap around your waist to hold it in place. So I sit in class in my nice hakama that I can't believe I'm wearing and nothing happens. No one calls me sensei and I'm not leading a class to reveal the coolness of what aikido has taught me.

Actually I lied when I said I love aikido. It's more a love / hate relationship. I never did learn to roll gracefully. I'm not an athletic person. I got frustrated when I didn't do an art perfectly the first time. The other students seem to be getting this, what's my problem?

I despaired the times I came home from class exhausted and sobbed because I got it up here in my head intellectually but the direct experience of extending ki eluded me. I wanted to quit so many times. I would disappear for a month or two but was always drawn back knowing this was too important to walk away from.

The first dojo was in an old elementary school tucked in the south hills of Eugene. This involved a twenty minute bus ride ( I don't drive a  car) and a walk through a quiet, hilly neighborhood. I went when it was cold, dark and rainy. I wondered why I was making the effort. I didn't put that kind of effort into anything else.

I made a vow not to quit when I began and I'm stubborn I guess, sso I was stuck with my decision. Still it was hard, then it was easy, then it was hard again. A moment of praise from the teacher would keep me going for weeks. A moment of failure would plunge me into doubt. Climbing the mountain of self improvement is not so simple.

When the brand new dojo was built a mere five minute ride from home well, I had no reason to miss class. Except there was. Tension between me and the senior instructor had been building for years. We never got along due to clashing personalities. He was a fine teacher but struck me as rather bossy. I'm sure the feeling was mutual.

First my mother died, followed a few years later by the unexpected death of my younger sister-which the senior instructor was connected to as he was her doctor.

I was so angry at him and so devastated by her loss I stopped attending  his class for a year and a half. I returned only because I was under the impression I needed to in order to get my black belt.
Remember that? I was still determined to get mine. Everyone else I trained with was there.

One morning I woke from a dream where everyone in class-except me- was wearing a hakama, regardless of rank. Imagine my reaction when I went to class a few days later and indeed everyone was wearing one. It turns out they were practicing for the yearly competition and it was required for the upper division. I wasn't doing it that year of course.

I was still stuck at brown belt. I was having a tricky time with a technique I just didn't get and mentioned it to the sensei.

"That's why you don't advance, iit's always two steps forward and one step back for you."

Then it hit me- after all the years of struggle. I was too dense or naive to see it: he never believed I could do this. Whether it was true or not, that was the last straw. I went to the other instructor and asked her to be my primary  teacher. Fortunately she said yes despite her own misgivings about me, I was always a pain in the ass to her too. I made sure she didn't think I was some broken toy like the other teacher.

"I don't believe anyone is broken. I have complete confidence you can do this Alisa." That was the right thing to say.

I was ready to test. I knew the arts, I was in the groove, the finish line was in sight I was- oh shit.
I had been having attacks of acute pain in my lower gut for years that turned out  to be a set of nasty ovarian cysts that had to be removed  now. So the test was put  off for another eight months. I came this far, I wasn't giving up now. I was patient, I was careful, I was ready.

It was a bright, clear day in May at the dojo in Portland where the test was done. There was only one other student testing and only a few people were in attendance  but I didn't care. The shodan test is supervised by the head instructor of the Oregon Ki Society. The  test can be long and exacting but I knew what was expected of me. Calmness, focus, staying centered. The finale is Rondori- an art where you are attacked by several people at once and you have to keep throwing them aside until the sensei signals an end. It felt like forever but actually only lasted a very active twenty seconds. Then it was over. The relief was indescribable, I was so glad I made it. I got my Big Deal at last and danced in the light of something grand and special in my life. 

On top of that I finally went to Japan with a group of students a few months later to train at the World Headquarter dojo. I trained, I toured, I took lots of pictures. It was the best summer of my adult life.

Five years later the rush of achievement has worn off as I look around at the plateau I reached I wonder if I have the strength of will  to continue the climb. Other than playing with the big kids in the instructors class, I don't see any more advancement ahead.

 You see, I was diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome three years ago. Having a debilitating neurological condition with stunted social skills kind of limits the ability to effectively teach. No wonder it took me so long, no wonder I was so frustrated. It turns outt he teachers had the patience of saints while dealing with me. 

The lessons in ki I learned over the years have helped me to deal with a disability I only recently discovered. It's made my life richer with possibilities. It's allowed me to overcome obstacles and tragedies but I want to do more with this art and it isn't happening. Until I can find a way, it's time to rest from this journey.

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